Wissot: Bravery requires a conscience, something severely lacking in both sides of Congress (column)
A conscience is necessary to act bravely in the face of hostile criticism and the threat of ostracism. Absent a conscience, politicians turn into political hacks who fold at the first hint of pressure from influential benefactors.
I bring up this subject because the current cowardice in Washington stands in stark contrast to John F. Kennedy’s memorable book “Profiles in Courage,” first published in 1955 when he was still a member of the U.S. Senate.
JFK’s book paid tribute to the bravery displayed by members of the U.S. Senate, in both the 19th and 20th centuries, who placed loyalty to their consciences and country over fealty to their party, constituents and lobbyists. In many cases, it cost them their jobs or precluded their chances for political advancement.
John Quincy Adams, long before he became the sixth president of the United States, lost his Senate seat because he not only bucked his Federalist Party but also sided with the opposition Democratic-Republican Party’s president, Thomas Jefferson, over the issue of retaliation against British maritime belligerence.
Thomas Hart Benton was a pro-slavery Senator from Missouri who was the first member of that body to serve for 30 consecutive years. He ran afoul of his constituents and the Democrat Party in Missouri when he helped defeat a treaty in the Senate which would have approved the annexation of the republic of Texas from Mexico and allowed it to join the union as a slave-holding state. He believed the treaty favored the secessionist forces in the South and threatened the preservation of the union.
Voted out of office, he said to his constituents in his last Senate report, “I value solid popularity — the esteem of good men for action. I despise the bubble popularity that is won without merit and lost without crime.” (“Profiles,” p. 92)
The same fate befell Daniel Webster, who infuriated the abolitionists in Massachusetts when he stood on the Senate floor and implored his colleagues to worry more about the preservation of union than either the preservation or abolition of slavery. His stance cost him the nomination for president from the Whig Party in 1852.
Eight years later, on reaching the White House, Abraham Lincoln would take up Webster’s position in promoting the preservation of the union over the interests of both pro and anti-slavery forces.
To his constituents back home, Webster explained, “Necessity compels me to speak true rather than pleasing things. … I should indeed like to please you; but I prefer to save you, whatever your attitude toward me.” (“Profiles,” p.69)
I can’t even begin to imagine a current member of Congress daring to be as patently transparent as Webster. Neither can I think of a single member of the Senate who would warrant inclusion in a 21st century sequel to Kennedy’s book.
Last week’s theatrics, better known as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings, clearly proved that. It would have been encouraging to see renegade Republican moderates such as Jeff Flake and Susan Collins risk the censure of their party by voting against the Kavanaugh nomination. But they didn’t.
I don’t have anything better to say about my own partisan preference: the Democrats. They stood like good wooden soldiers in following the orders of Chuck Schumer and the party leadership.
It would have been a sign of real moral backbone if party stalwarts such as Dick Durban, of Illinois, and Pat Leahy, of Vermont, had spoken out against the mudslinging, trashing and false claims made not only against Christine Blasey Ford by Republican flame throwers but by zealots from their side of the aisle against Judge Kavanaugh.
But they didn’t. Too bad. They missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate conscience-driven courage and why two wrongs never make a right.
The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was established in 1989 to single out the accomplishments of outstanding public servants.
In 2001, the recipient was President Gerald R. Ford. In his acceptance speech he said, “For, in the age-old contest between popularity and principle, only those willing to lose for their convictions are deserving of posterity’s approval.” (“Profiles,” p. 19).
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.